Mea Culpa: Is Boris Johnson a shopping trolley or a ship?

Questions of language and style in last week’s Independent, reviewed by John Rentoul

Saturday 06 November 2021 21:30
<p>Full speed ahead, captain </p>

Full speed ahead, captain

The prime minister compared himself to a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel when he was trying to decide whether to support Remain or Leave in the EU referendum. The analogy has been taken up enthusiastically by Dominic Cummings, his former adviser, as we wrote: “We are all used to the chaos, by now; the broken supermarket trolley, as Cummings likes to call Boris Johnson, careening from one side of the aisle to the other, agreeing with whoever he last smashed into.”

The usual word is “careering”, from “career”, originally a wheeled vehicle from the Latin carrus (the same word that gave us carriage), which came to mean a road or racecourse and thence the course of someone’s life. The use of “careening” to mean the same thing is “mainly North American”, according to the Oxford dictionary.

This is a meaning acquired by the confusion of similar-sounding words. “Careening” used to mean turning a boat on its side to clean it (from Latin carina, keel), but it is not a word most of us often need, and if we did we would probably say, “turning a boat on its side to clean it”. But if we mean “move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way”, as Roger Thetford pointed out, we should stick with “careering”.

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